The Luck of Roaring Camp Summary
by Bret Harte

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The Luck of Roaring Camp Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” written in Harte’s characteristic narrative style, begins with a depiction of approximately a hundred men standing outside a shack in which “Cherokee Sal” is giving birth unattended. Because there are no other women in the mining community, Kentuck, “a prominent citizen,” sends Stumpy, a bigamist seeking refuge in the lawless Roaring Camp, in to help Sal. Stumpy has “had experience in them things.”

While Stumpy tries to help Sal, the other men of Roaring Camp wait outside, smoking pipes and wagering on the survival of Sal and the infant and on the gender of the child. Characteristic of Harte’s Gold Rush tales, the sketch of the opening scene is vivid, showing the men on the hill facing the cabin illuminated by the moon and their campfire. This scene draws readers into the suspense of the action.

The cry of the infant breaks the suspense, causing celebration among the men, but their enthusiasm is dampened by Cherokee Sal’s death within the hour. Stumpy takes up a collection for the infant as the men file through the cabin, pay their last respects to Sal, and look at the infant. Kentuck is delighted, and cusses to show it, when the baby clutches his finger. Kentuck turns to Sandy Tipton, another of the men, and says, “He rastled with my finger, . . . the damned little cuss!” It was this opening scene with Sal, a prostitute, and the cussing Kentuck that caused the conflict between Bret Harte and the proofreader of the Overland Monthly.

Fittingly, the men of Roaring Camp become, as one, father to the orphan, though Stumpy becomes the main caregiver. The men of Roaring Camp soon hold a rowdy christening for the child and name him Thomas Luck, the luck of Roaring Camp. The final pages of the story sketch the men of Roaring Camp becoming attached to the infant Tommy Luck. As their attachment grows, the men become more proper and keep the camp and themselves cleaner. The expressman tells stories in other camps of the transformation of Roaring Camp. He concludes, “They’ve got vines and flowers round their houses, and they wash themselves twice a day. But they’re mighty rough on strangers, and they worship an Ingin baby.”

The washing becomes a sort of gruesome irony when the spring thaws flood the riverbanks and wash away Stumpy’s cabin, drowning Stumpy and setting Kentuck and the child adrift in the river. When Kentuck and the child are found, Kentuck, clutching Tommy Luck, is told that the child is dead and that he, too, is dying. Kentuck, still clutching the “frail babe,” takes “The Luck” with him and drifts away into the “shadowy river” of death.

Such is the story that created the turmoil in the second issue of the Overland Monthly. In an interview in 1894, Harte said of the conflict that the publisher feared that the story might imperil the magazine’s future. Harte, however, concluded that if the story were not suitable, then he was not the suitable editor for the magazine; Harte prevailed. When the story appeared, Harte said, public reaction was strong:The religious papers were unanimous in declaring it immoral, and they published columns in its disfavor. The local press, reflecting the pride of a young and new community, could not see why stories should be printed by their representative magazine which put the community into such unfavorable contrast with the effete civilization of the East. They would have none of it!

Harte concludes, however, that a month later, when Fields & Osgood, Boston publishers, sent him a letter offering to publish future works of the author of “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the tide of criticism turned. Once Boston endorsed the story, Harte said, “San Francisco was properly proud of it.”


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In an isolated California mining camp during the gold-rush days, the whole camp is astounded and intrigued at the birth of a baby to a sinful woman named Cherokee Sal, who died at the child’s birth. Only such a novel event could involve so...

(The entire section is 1,318 words.)